If you ever get complacent about how lucky Americans are, talk to a recent immigrant. Especially one from a country ravaged by war.
“America serves humanity,” the Syrian-raised Malek Jandali said over the phone about his adopted country.
You may not have heard of Jandali, but the Queens University alum’s name is now mentioned in the same sentence with Yo-Yo Ma, Henry Kissinger and Arianna Huffington. Like those luminaries, Jandali was honored in July as a Great Immigrant: The Pride of America by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Jandali, a 41-year-old composer and pianist, joins 37 other immigrants, including gymnast Nastia Liukin (Russia), producer Lorne Michaels (Canada) and Pulitzer prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks (Australia) as 2015 honorees.
He came to Charlotte in 1995 on a music scholarship. “Can you imagine?” he asked. “Someone from a third-world country getting a full scholarship to study in the United States!”
The composer laughs easily and often. He guffaws at his own jokes. But he turns serious when he talks about his homeland and alma mater.
“Mixing liberal arts with a music program: That’s the trick,” he said. “If I had gone to Juilliard, I would’ve gotten a music education but I would never have had weekly (model U.N.) meetings where I discussed world views with other students and professors.”
While at Queens, Jandali studied under music professor Paul Nitsch, Ph.D., who recalls his former student as driven and intense but with an “incredible zest for life.” Nitsch recognized there was big potential in his student as a concert pianist. He didn’t know at the time what a gift Jandali had for composition.
“His music is colorful and accessible,” Nitsch said. “He draws from the breadth of his international experience and uses some ancient instruments we don’t see much.” His album, “Syrian Symphony,” includes one of those instruments – the lute-like oud – and was recorded during a Carnegie Hall performance.
Jandali didn’t set off for Carnegie Hall right after graduation. He stayed in Charlotte (and still owns a condo here) and played the organ for a local church.
The congregation embraced him. “I was born in Germany on Christmas Day,” he said. “Every year at the Christmas Eve service, after I played ‘Silent Night,’ the congregation would sing, ‘Happy Birthday, Malek.’” (More laughter.)
During his years in Charlotte, he became an American citizen. “I voted for the first time in my life,” he said. “I cherish that.” He also cherishes the opportunity to educate people about his homeland. “The only bad thing about Syria is the dictatorship,” he said. “Everything else is beautiful.”
And he makes a comparison between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and King George III. “The Syrian people revolted against a dictator. Just like in America.
“Dictators are against beauty, truth and music.”
He knows that all too well. After he performed “I am My Homeland” (“I am my homeland, and my homeland is me/Oh my homeland, when will I see you free?”) at the White House in 2011, he said, his parents were attacked in Syria as a form of retaliation. “My mother was beaten,” he said. “My father was handcuffed and made to watch. For the first time in my life, I realized how powerful music can be.” (His parents have moved to the United States and are on their way to attaining citizenship.)
Now a resident of Atlanta and New York, he calls himself a “musician on a mission.” The alliteration makes him laugh, but his intent – to create social change through the universal language of music – is solemn.
He marvels at American ingenuity and excitedly lists Americans’ contributions to technologies from airplanes to cars to computers.
When he mentions the computer – and learning about the Internet as a Queens student – he can’t help but boast of a cousin who had something to do with the computer revolution. Steve Jobs’ last name was Jandali before he was adopted by the Jobs family.
Says Jandali: “Never underestimate a Syrian.”
Musician on a mission
Syrian-born, Queens University-educated Malek Jandali hopes his music can bring about social change in his home country and understanding of a different culture in his adopted country.
Learn more at malekjandali.com, where you can hear performances and check out his recordings.